Francis Bacon (15611626). Of the Wisdom of the Ancients. 1857.
Or Religious Zeal
DIOMEDES, a hero of high renown and a special favourite of Pallas, was incited by her (being of himself apt enough) if he chanced to encounter Venus in the battle, not to spare her. He boldly did as he was bid, and wounded Venus in the hand. This for the time he carried with impunity, and returned to his own country in great fame and reputation: but meeting there with domestic troubles he took refuge abroad in Italy. Here also he had a good enough fortune at first. King Daunus entertained him with hospitality and enriched him with honours and presents, and many statues were raised to him throughout the country. But no sooner did a calamity befal the people among whom he had taken up his abode, than Daunus bethought him that he was entertaining under his roof a man impious and hated by the gods, a fighter against heaven, who had violently assaulted and wounded with the sword a goddess whom it was forbidden even to touch. Whereupon, to free his country from the curse under which it lay, he suddenly (setting aside the bond of hospitality, in respect to the more ancient bond of religion) puts Diomedes to death, and orders his statues to be thrown down and his honours cancelled. Nor was it safe in such a case even to pity so grievous an accident; but his comrades likewise, when they bewailed the death of their chief and filled the land with lamentations, were changed into a kind of swans,a bird which at the approach of its own death also utters a sweet and plaintive sound.
The subject of this fable is rare and almost singular; for there is no other story in which any hero is represented as having wounded a god. This is told of Diomedes only: and in him certainly seems meant to be portrayed the character and fortunes of a man who makes it his declared object to persecute and overthrow by violence and the sword some religious worship or sect, though a vain and light one. For though religious wars were unknown to the ancients (the heathen gods having no touch of jealousy, which is the attribute of the true God), yet so great appears to have been the wisdom of the primitive ages and so wide the range of it, that what they did not know by experience they nevertheless attained in idea by reflexion and imagination.
Now those who make war against any religious sect, though a vain, corrupt, and infamous one (and this is signified in the person of Venus), proceeding not by force of reason and doctrine and by sanctity of life and by weight of examples and authorities to correct and confute, but by fire and sword and sharpness of punishment to cut out and exterminate the same;such persons are perhaps set upon the work by Pallas,that is, by a certain keenness of discernment and severity of judgment which gives them a thorough insight into the fallacies and falsehoods of such errors, joined with hatred of evil and honest zeal;and for a time they commonly acquire great glory, and are by the vulgar (who can never like what is moderate) celebrated and almost worshipped as the only champions of truth and religion; all others appearing lukewarm and timid. And yet this glory and felicity seldom endures to the end; but almost every kind of violence, unless by an early death it escape the vicissitudes of fortune, is in the end unprosperous. And if it so happen that an alteration takes place in the state, whereby that proscribed and depressed sect gathers strength and raises its head, then are the zealous and contentious courses of these men condemned, their very name hated, and all their honours turned into reproach. The murder of Diomedes by the hands of his host alludes to the fact that difference in matter of religion breeds falsehood and treachery even among the nearest and dearest friends. And where it is said that the very grief and lamentations of his comrades were not tolerated, but visited with punishment, the meaning is that whereas almost every crime is open to pity, insomuch that they who hate the offence may yet in humanity commiserate the person and calamity of the offender,and it is the extremity of evil to have the offices of compassion interdicted,yet where religion and piety are in question, the very expression of pity is noted and disliked. On the other hand, the sorrows and lamentations of the comrades of Diomedes, that is of those who are of the same sect and opinion, are commonly very piercing and musical, like the notes of swans, or birds of Diomedes. And this part of the allegory has a further meaning which is striking and noble; namely that in the case of persons who suffer for religion, the words which they speak at their death, like the song of the dying swan, have a wonderful effect and impression upon mens minds, and dwell long after in their memory and feelings.